Portuguese Empire in Brazil – Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil

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Portuguese Empire in Brazil – Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil

1 Introduction

We have seen the influence of revolutionary ideas on the main liberation movements in Portuguese America.

We have also studied certain events related to the arrival of the Court in Brazil.

In this chapter we’ll look at the period during which Dom João VI stayed in Rio de Janeiro, the capital city of the Portuguese Empire in the tropics.

Jean-Baptiste Debret - Portrait of John VI of Portugal
Jean-Baptiste Debret – Portrait of John VI of Portugal

 This period, from 1808 to 1821, is characterised by a series of socio-cultural transformations.

In general, it was marked by accelerated social and urban development.

The Empire’s seat city will be our main focus of study from now on, as it was in Rio de Janeiro that the royal family settled and made the main changes to the Kingdom.

2. Transfer of the capital from Lisbon to Brazil

The transfer of Brazil’s capital from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro was a strategic military decision taken by the Secretary of State, the Marquis of Pombal.

In 1763, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who held the titles of Count of Oeiras and Marquis of Pombal, was given the mission of administering the Portuguese state by Dom José I (successor to Dom João V and predecessor to Dom Maria and Dom João VI).

When the Marquis of Pombal formed Dom José I’s cabinet in 1750, he sought to strengthen the state, on whose solidity the functioning of mercantilism depended, and invested in monarchical absolutism as a way for Portugal to survive as an independent nation. […] In the colony, the Pombaline period was characterised by great oppression, typical of mercantilism, but also by a concern with administrative achievements.

In 1750, Portugal was lagging behind England and France.

Even so, Pombal aimed to maintain Portugal’s colonial possessions and limit the English presence in Brazil.

Among the Marquis of Pombal’s administrative reforms, the following Companies were created:

  • Companhia Geral do Comércio do Grão-Pará e Maranhão – 1755
  • General Company of Pernambuco and Paraíba – 1759

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 110):

The first company aimed to develop the northern region by offering attractive prices for goods produced there and consumed in Europe, such as cocoa, cloves, cinnamon, cotton and rice, transported exclusively on the company’s ships.

It also introduced black slaves who, given the regional poverty, were mostly re-exported to the mines of Mato Grosso.

The second company sought to reactivate the Northeast along the same lines.

Despite his attempts to rebuild the Portuguese Empire, Pombal found it difficult to manage the economic crisis caused by the fall in the price of sugar, due to the aforementioned competition from Spain, and the reduction in the volume of gold taken from the mines in the interior.

Among Pombal’s policies, the most controversial was the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal and its colonies.

Pombal had plans to integrate the Indians into Portuguese civilisation and prevent the development of the Companies of Jesus within colonial territory.

As a way of “remedying the problems created by the expulsion of the Jesuits in the area of education, the Portuguese Crown took measures.

A special tax – the literary subsidy – was created to support state-sponsored education.”

Pombal thus reformed education in Portugal and Brazil, removing the Jesuits’ right to teach. As a result of Pombal’s reforms, the Olinda seminary was created in Pernambuco – an institution specialising in the natural sciences and mathematics.

Teaching then became the responsibility of the state, as we can see in the following document:

Statutes to be observed by the masters of boys’ schools in this captaincy of São Paulo, 1768.

  1.  That there will be two Masters in this City and one in each of the adjacent Villages, who will be proposed by the respective Chambers, and approved by the General, and will not be able to exercise their ministry without this approval and taking a Provision or licence from it.
  2. That all the boys they admit, will be with the order of the same General, and will not be able to pass to another school without the same order, and this so that the Masters can freely chastise them without the fear that their parents will remove them for this reason or for other frivolous ones that are commonly practised, and if they want to remove them for any other employment, they will give bail to present, at a certain time, a certificate of occupation or trade, in which they have been employed.
  3. That no child may go on to study the Latin language without first obtaining the same licence, which will be given with information from the teacher about their ability, to know if they are well instructed in reading, writing, counting and good manners, so that they may not go on to other greater studies without these first and most necessary foundations of the Christian religion and civil obligations.

SOURCE: Document taken from the book by: DEL PRIORE, Mary. The book of gold of history of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Ediouro, 2001, p. 120-121

In this sense, the Marquis of Pombal represented the Portuguese state itself. Or rather, he was the main representative of a specific social group, the Portuguese bourgeoisie.

A social group that demanded political and educational reforms and, above all, commercial advantages that were suspended with the opening of Brazilian ports.

Political centralisation was one of the main actions of the Pombaline administration.

This centralisation was characterised by power being gathered in one place.

While in Portugal orders came from Lisbon, in Brazil actions had to be managed from Rio de Janeiro.

We should consider that Rio de Janeiro had ports closer to the Minas Gerais region, which began to surpass the port of Salvador in terms of the volume of goods traded.

The location of the port also meant that the Crown had more effective control over the mining region.

In this sense, the new capital of the Empire came to enjoy political and economic hegemony.

The market, in turn, came to be influenced by a social layer of liberal professionals linked to commerce, who took advantage of the new conditions that the city of Luminense enjoyed.

3. Restructuring of the capital Rio de Janeiro

The presence of King João VI and the Portuguese Court led to a series of socio-cultural transformations in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

D. Pedro I e a família real portuguesa
D. Pedro I and the Portuguese royal family

In his book “Sobrados e Mucambos”, Gilberto Freyre presents us with an impressionistic picture of the prince regent, while at the same time pointing out the urban innovations of the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.

How about reading an extract from this important work on Brazil’s colonial past?

The presence in Rio de Janeiro of a prince with the powers of a king; a bourgeois prince, a slob, his gestures soft, his fingers almost always honeyed with chicken sauce, but carrying the crown; bringing the queen, the court, noblemen to kiss his greasy but prudent hand, soldiers to parade in front of his palace on feast days, foreign ministers, physicists, conductors to play him church music, imperial palm trees in whose shade grew the first colleges, the first library, the first bank; the mere presence of a monarch in a land as republicanised as Brazil, with its rocks of insubordination, its plantation lords, its miners and its paulistas who disobeyed the distant king, who disrespected, imprisoned and even expelled representatives of His Majesty (like the lords of Pernambuco with the Xumbergas); who had already tried to establish themselves in republics; the mere presence of a monarch in a land so anti-monarchical in its tendencies towards regional and even feudal autonomies, changed the isionomy of colonial society; altered it in its most characteristic features.

Among the significant changes in Rio’s urban landscape, we highlight the presence of official press organs (Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro and Golden Age of Brazil); the Royal Theatre of São João; as well as libraries, museums and academies.

At that time, a real cultural effervescence was taking place in the temporary seat of the Empire.

Schools were founded: for medicine, the navy, war, commerce; a Royal Press, which we had always been refused; in 1814, a bookshop, which would become the nucleus of our national library; the Museum, the Botanical Garden.

A real euphoria – as John Mawe recounts – gripped the colony.

Everything that had hitherto been denied us was being created, everything that we lacked, especially the tools and instruments capable of engendering progress in the field of intellectual culture.

It was as if Brazil had woken up from a long sleep and was on its way to liberation, a sketch of a university that the Prince Regent wanted to entrust to the leadership of José Bonifácio.

What the colony hadn’t achieved in three centuries, it was now achieving in less than a decade.

This intense cultural movement stimulated scientific studies into Brazilian fauna and flora.

In order to discover the potential of Brazilian nature, foreign naturalists were allowed to study the Portuguese part of the New Continent.

These scholars did a real job of mapping the colony’s vegetation, animals, geography and different ethnic groups.

4. The Scientific and Artistic Spirit

From the beginning of the 19th century, the Western world began to learn about the flora, fauna and geography of Brazil.

The government of King João promoted the arrival of European scientists and artists, who spread the first seeds of academic development throughout the country.

The foreign naturalists endeavoured to record the animal and plant species of the Brazilian forests, as well as to map the landscapes of the countryside and the city through painting and drawing.

Similarly, the habits of the people, or rather the different regional cultures, were recorded (what we call ethnographic records) by travelling scientists.

Among the naturalists, Carlo Frederico Filipe von Martius, a doctor and botanist, João Batista von Spix, a zoologist, and Jorge Henrique von Langsdorff stood out.

The English mineralogist John Mawe and the French naturalist Saint-Hilaire also came to Brazil.

In 1816 the French Artistic Mission arrived in Rio de Janeiro.

Marriage of Pedro I and Amelia Amélia 1829, Jean-Baptiste Debret

The architect Montigny, who drew up urban building projects, and the painters Taunay and Debret were part of the Mission.

The latter even painted members of the Portuguese royal family.

Vista do Convento de Santo Antônio para a baía de Guanabara (RJ), 1816, por de Nicolas Antoine Taunay.
View of the Convent of Santo Antônio towards Guanabara Bay (RJ), 1816, by Nicolas Antoine Taunay.
In those decades when photography didn’t exist, there was no other way to capture plants, animals and landscapes than by drawing or painting.

For this reason, naturalists were usually expert draughtsmen or were accompanied by specialised draughtsmen and painters […] Debret spent 15 years among our people, painting and drawing.

As well as working at the Academy, he portrayed various members of the royal and imperial family, painted historical pictures and made countless studies and sketches, which he used in part to make his work Voyage Pitoresque et Historique au Brésil […].

This work, published between 1834 and 1839, is the result of his observations and studies of Brazilian life and history, with the first volume dedicated to the indigenous people and the last two to daily life, street scenes and historical scenes.

The writings and images produced by these foreign travellers, artists and naturalists appear as true historical documents. Through them, we can learn more about that period.

However, these foreign representations of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian regions are full of prejudices about the population, customs and colonial urban structure.

Brazil was generally seen as an archaic and backward country. However, the exuberant tropical vegetation was the main highlight of these images, representations of Brazil.

5. Habits of the Portuguese Court

In addition to the construction of a new architectural structure and the development of the sciences and arts, Rio de Janeiro’s urban space served as a stage for noble courtiers and members of the royal family.

The city’s streets became a stage for the public staging of courtly customs.

Luxurious carriages and dress contrasted with the dirty, narrow streets of a city populated by a majority of Afro-descendants.

The Luso-Brazilian elite incorporated new habits, coming less from Portugal and more from France and England.

From the English came a taste for homes in isolated, well-divided and more hygienic houses, far from the city centre; for products that were superior in quality: crystal and glass, china and porcelain, iron pots and pans.

There was also a change in the way people ate, with the use of forks and knives, and the use of new medicines.

Despite the military conflicts between the Portuguese and the French, it was France that dictated fashion in Rio.

To have “good taste” at that time was to have your house decorated with French wallpaper and English furniture.

Women had to know how to behave in public with the utmost discretion, be able to read and write.

At a ball, you had to be able to dance properly.

A whole set of rules of behaviour served, in fact, as a symbolic form of differentiation between the elite and the poor, if not the slaves. Etiquette was a visual way of marking social and cultural differences.

It wasn’t long before the urban middle classes began to imitate courtly habits. Among the cultural practices appropriated from the nobility, we find the public walk in the gardens, the cult of the garden, the admiration of nature and outdoor leisure.

6. Formation of a Middle Class

Economic development, fuelled by 18th century mining and the presence of the Court in Brazil, gave colonial society more urban characteristics.

In this sense, new city groups appeared, and with them a greater professional diversification was felt in Brazilian society.

Until then, this society had been divided predominantly between a rural aristocracy that owned the large estates, a middle layer of free labourers (farmers, artisans, merchants, etc.) and slaves.

However, during the mining era, there was a commercial and service development that led to the growth of an urban middle class, made up of civil servants, the military, artisans, liberal professionals, literati and merchants.

In turn, the cities, as places where this middle class lived, underwent a process of remodelling.

City merchants invested in numerous businesses: in slaves, in dry goods, in insurance companies, in the postal system and in educational companies.

Others became bankers. There were also merchants who travelled around different cities to sell their goods.

Alongside the various forms of travelling trade, urbanisation had, above all, increased the fixed market. This was divided into shops and sales.

The first, large ones, were in the urban centres, the second, smaller ones, on the outskirts.

Both sold dry goods and manufactured products such as cloths and tools, as well as drinks and food.

The inventories reveal, for example, that in one of these shops the buyer would find various products such as incense, marmalade, cinnamon, barrels of cachaça, bacon and salt for pots, soap and jars of vinegar;

Their owners financed the activity of even smaller merchants who brought them goods from distant ports, as well as keeping clerks, bookkeepers and accountants in charge of collections and stock lists.

The immigrants who sought new opportunities in the “tropical eldorado” were the main players in this socio-cultural diversification.

They were tailors, coopers, carapins (navy carpenters), caulkers, silversmiths, goldsmiths and shoemakers. The women were divided between embroiderers, seamstresses, hatters and feather makers.

However, the urban development and all the cultural colour contrasted with the social differences between free and slave, rich and poor.

The difference between the countryside and the city began to emerge, between the urban bourgeois, identified with the values of civilisation, and the humble countryman who was associated with a backward and ignorant country.

7. In this chapter you saw:

  • The centralising measures adopted by the Marquis of Pombal in Brazil, to strengthen the administrative structure of the Colony.
  • The main urban and social transformations carried out in the capital city of the Portuguese empire, in the tropics.
  • The encouragement of the creation of research and secular educational institutions, and the financing of scientific and artistic expeditions to Brazil in order to learn about Brazilian nature and culture.
  • The customs of the court as a symbolic differential of power.
  • The formation of an urban middle class as a result of the development and diversification of colonial society.

Discover the periods of colonial Brazilian history below:

  1. Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil
  2. Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama
  3. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition and the Conquest of Brazil
  4. Pre-colonial period in Brazil: “The Forgotten Years”
  5. Installation of the Portuguese Colony in Brazil
  6. Installation of the General Government in Brazil and the Founding of Salvador
  7. Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil
  8. Colonial sugar mills in Brazil
  9. The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil
  10. Foundation of the city of São Paulo and the Bandeirantes
  11. Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil
  12. Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil
  13. The Portuguese Empire in Brazil
  14. Independence of Brazil – Breaking of colonial ties in Brazil
  15. Historical Periods of Brazil


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